Friday, October 24, 2014

Freak Shows and Shifting Lines

In this week's episode of American Horror Story, bearded lady Ethel (played by the amazingly talented Kathy Bates) is confronted by a literal ghost that makes her revisit a figurative one. Through her interaction with hell bound spirit Edward Mordrake, she recounts her most shameful secret: the circumstances surrounding the birth of her son, "Lobster Boy" Jimmy (Evan Peters).

In the scene, we see her laboring in a field against a tree as midwives hover nearby. The father of her baby and then-lover sells tickets and guides customers to gawk at her as she bears down and gives birth to her son. As soon as the father sees that the son, too, is a "freak" (his fingers are fused into "lobster hands"), he tries to capitalize on an even more lucrative endeavor and sell chances to hold the newborn baby (before his mother even gets a chance). Ethel's voice cracks as she tells Mordrake that her son's known nothing but exploitation since the moment he was born.

Ethel is clearly appalled by what they did, and we're supposed to be appalled, too. But I think the most interesting part of this scene is the recoil of the audience when they get the chance to hold the child for just a few more cents. They shudder and shrink back in horror. They are here to see, not to feel. As deplorable as the father's character is (in this and other scenes throughout the show so far), I can't help but think that this misjudgment of the audience's desire to hold his "freak" son belies an unexpected naivety. He sees the profit in his strongman act, his son's lobster hands, his new girlfriend's triple breasts, but he hasn't fully considered what the revulsion that drives that profit means. Those people are paying to observe the spectacle of isolation so that they don't have to feel it.

And we're really not so different. Sure, we've recognized the problematic exploitation inherent in freak shows, but we've simply shifted our exploitation of those who are othered and identified as freaks into different, sleeker, less visceral mediums. Why risk going into the show where the freak might touch you (or ask you to hold his infant son) when you can get the same thrill and reassurance that you are normal from the sanitized glare of your TV screen?

Toddlers and Tiaras (which I've written about before when I made the mistake of trying to watch an episode) may have a 1.8/10 rating on IMDb, but people are still watching. Its spin-off show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was just cancelled because of the star's mother's romantic involvement with a child molester. TLC, in particular, is dominated by shows that hinge around difference and disability under the guise of showcasing diversity but often simply give the viewing public the chance to feel more secure in their own normalcy. Just go look at their show lineup and tell me that it isn't the modern-day equivalent of those posters featured above.

That isn't to say that the relationship between spectatorship and exploitation is a clear one. As this AV Club article explores, many "freaks" did not feel they had been exploited. One of the actors from American Horror Story (Mat Fraser, who plays Paul the Illustrated Seal) is interviewed in the article and explains his views:
Fraser—who, in addition to his work as a performer, has spent years researching performers with disabilities and their shows—says he simply couldn’t find any credible cases of non-mentally impaired, adult performers being taken advantage of by sideshow producers.
Many of the performers felt grateful for the opportunity to make a living from their perceived difference:
Fraser cites one of his idols, Stanislaus Berent a.k.a. Sealo The Seal Boy, as one such success story. “He worked at the sideshow from 1929 to the late ’70s and was proud of the fact that he kept his family clothed, housed, and fed throughout his entire career.”
One might like to think that such dire circumstances (someone with a physical disability having such a limited range of career opportunities) would have been eliminated through our cultural shifts and social changes, but--at least for actors--that's not always the case. As Fraser goes on to explain:
While it may still seem shocking or exploitive to some viewers, he says, the presence of people with disabilities (“apart from Peter Dinklage”) on highly rated shows is minuscule; the work by Fraser and others on AHS may serve as a jumping off point for the next phase of discussion and inclusion. “We’re not used to people with radically outsider bodies like myself in entertainment,” he explains, “so arguments about the tone and the politics must come after some visibility.” Plus, who better to play freaks and outsiders than people who fully understand all the implications of what those designations truly mean? “If we can’t even play ourselves in the history of our own showbiz lineage, then I think we’re in a pretty bad place,” Fraser says.
Indeed, a look at Fraser's other acting credits demonstrate that his difference has often been the central function of his performance. He's worked on the show Cast Offs, the film Inbred, and Kung Fu Flid, which comes adorned with the tagline "Unarmed but dangerous."

So maybe the chance to, as Fraser put it, "play ourselves in the history of our own showbiz lineage" is indeed a step in the right direction when it comes to visibility and ownership, but what about the children?

I've seen a collapsing of questions surrounding exploitation and children around me this week that keep bouncing off that scene of Ethel giving birth to Jimmy. She is ashamed of having given him a lineage of exploitation by making even his birth a moment of profit and spectacle.

But there are a lot of moments in parenting that can be exploitative. While there are certainly some examples that seem clearly over the line (Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, I'm looking at you), the gradations between them get slippery as we move along. If we can agree that Honey Boo Boo is exploitative (a position that I'd stand behind), then what about its predecessor Toddlers and Tiaras? I'm still going to vote that it is, especially because of the way that the editing and focus is drawn in  to clearly play up the exploitative angels. If we can agree on that, though, what about beauty pageants in general? If you think the big, national shows are a problem, what about the talent shows held locally and with a more friendly tone? If those are a problem, what about the "baby contests" held at small town picnics? (I remember seeing a trophy I received from such an endeavor at some point in my pre-walking days).

If I was exploited by being shown off in front of neighbors in the park and then given an award for it, I certainly don't think that was my mother's intention (or the intention of the spectators, for that matter). Still, the idea of judging a baby's "beauty" and declaring a "winner" is a little creepy. If we think that's exploitative, what about showing off your newborn at all? Are we dooming children to a life of exploitation the moment we put that first picture on Facebook (or even just send it to an out-of-town relative)?

For me, that's an example of slippery slope argument. I don't think it's exploitative to put a picture of your newborn up on Facebook, but the exact place that the act crosses the line in that progression isn't clear to me. Is it somewhere between pageant and Toddlers and Tiaras? Somewhere between beauty contest and local talent show? Can we draw the line in different places?

I've been thinking about that a lot as I read the controversy surrounding the now-viral "F-bombs for Feminism" in which a swarm of little girls dressed like princesses say "fuck" a lot as they explain the problems with our gender norms. The video is a product (in all senses of the word) from FCKH8, a company that sells t-shirts featuring socially conscious slogans that has faced criticism for its tone-deafness and appropriative, overly simplistic style.

For the F-bombs video, they've faced some harsh and meaningful criticism from those who see the video as exploiting little girls to help FCKH8 sell more t-shirts. Rebecca Hains explains that:
This video was scripted and slickly produced by a t-shirt company that evidently has no qualms about exploiting girls who are too young to understand the implications of the script they’re bringing to life.
The Belle Jar takes a similar stance:
The video then has the sweet, princessified little girls tackle a bunch of feminist issues, namely the pay gap, violence against women, and sexual assault – all while swearing up a storm, of course. What FCKH8 wants you to take away from this is that society feels more uncomfortable about cute little girls saying the word fuck than it does about the very real issues faced by women on a daily basis. Instead, what I see is a video that relies on the shock value of girls in princess costumes cussing and talking about rape in order to increase its shareability.
I agree with both of these analyses of the video, but I have to admit that it made me squirm a little to come to that realization. The first thing that came to my mind was the viral video from a few years ago of little girl Riley giving a similar (if less profane) rant about the treatment of gender norms in the toy aisle:

You can hear Riley being coached by the videographer (presumably her father) during the video. She's also reciting lines that she probably didn't create on her own; some adult has shaped her perspective on this issue and many people (including some of my friends) grew angry at what they read as exploitation. They saw a video where parents used their little girl as the cuter mouthpiece for their own political and cultural stances. They saw it as an act of "brainwashing."

I stood (and still stand) in defense of Riley's rant. Sure, her parents were likely the real creators of most of her ideas, but parents are the real creators for many of our kids' ideas--that's sort of what this parenting gig is all about: giving kids the tools for how to see and interact with the world. The parents likely saw her cute rendition as a more shareable version, but I don't think they were "selling" her the same way FCKH8 is selling the girls in their video.

I'll admit, though, that the line between exploitation and teaching, between giving a kid of voice of their own and using them as your mouthpiece, between a local talent show and a beauty pageant is not always an easy one to discern.

Ethel was certainly complicit in the exploitation of her son as she leaned against that tree to give birth, but when held up against the acts we make every day, I don't think her sin is as uncommon as we might like to believe.

Image: stumptownpanda, Snap


  1. Thanks for this post. It's refreshing to read a post that leaves the reader to think, rather than pre-packaging the decision. I agree that the "line" between reasonable behavior and child exploitation isn't clear, and we definitely don't give it enough thought. Parents do teach children their ideas, but I think even more powerfully, we show them how to behave and think through our own lives, ala Honey Boo Boo's mother dating the child molester who molested one of her other daughters. That's perpetuating the cycle and incredibly tragic.

  2. Thank you for reading and for your kind words! I'm usually blogging to try to figure out my own stance on iffy subjects, so giving it more thought is the main goal.

    I completely agree about the perpetuation of a cycle. In this case, it was a particularly heinous cycle, but I think that most of us as parents are passing on habits and beliefs that we don't always examine. (I know watching my daughter get frustrated and impatient is always like holding up a mirror and it's making me want to do better.)